On Jan. 15, the annual Palmares Festival held its very first fishing tournament on the Río Grande, 10 minutes downhill from the festival fairgrounds in the Central Valley coffee town of Palmares, northwest of San José. This was an important milestone, as for years many of the people who live near the river have thought it was too contaminated to support life. But on that Sunday, the nonbelievers were proven wrong – enough fish were caught to grill up a snack for, say, four people.
“For us the river was dead,” said Gerardo Badilla, who sits on the Palmares Civic Association board of directors, which organizes the festival. “I grew up around this river. Forty years ago it was clean. But because of bad practices by the industries, and because the communities around it have grown so much and the black water they deposit into it has increased, the pollution has killed much of the life in the river.”
The pollution in the river, which runs right through the town, can be partly attributed to coffee plantations, according to Albino Vásquez, 23, a fishing aficionado who encouraged organizers to hold the tournament.
“The coffee plantations used to throw coffee bean shells into the river, and the shells would coat the river surface three inches thick,” he said, adding that though the shells are natural and biodegradable, in large quantities they formed an expansive shell raft that blocked out sunlight and contributed to pollution.
In recent years, efforts have been made to turn back the tide of pollution.
In 1992, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) implemented the Wildlife Conservation Law, which prohibits discarding black water or wastewater from residences or industry into waterways without first treating it, according to Shirley Soto, legal advisor for the ministry.
Around the same time, people who lived near the river began to speak up about the smell.
“About 10-15 years ago, the smells coming from decomposing coffee bean shells was bad – it’s because of the sugar in the shells. The people of Palmares were vocal about it,” said William García of Madre Verde, a foundation dedicated to conservation, reforestation and environmental research and education, which has been working with the civic association to educate the community about the importance of conserving the river, and to purchase tracts of bio-sensitive land that affect water sources.
A new method of dealing with coffee byproducts was found.
“The liquid waste is treated in a lagoon with bacteria to break it down, and worms break down the solid waste,” García explained. The river has also been the dumping grounds for processed waste from area pork and chicken farms, in addition to black water from the area’s inhabitants and plain human junk: beaten-up bicycles, tires, plastic bags – the same stuff people throw away all over the world.
Madre Verde began a program in 2004 to organize volunteers from the surrounding communities to clean garbage out of the river, and educate the Palmares community about conservation.
“Between December 2004 and December 2005,we held 11 action meetings,” García said.
The civic association helps by raising awareness about the need to conserve the river through hosting events such as the fishing tournament. In addition, it bolsters conservation efforts by dedicating proceeds from the festival to conservation.
William Vásquez (no relation to Albino) is the vice-president of the association, and has been involved with the festival for 13 years.
“We want to introduce species that are in danger of extinction,” he said. “We also want to protect the mountains where the springs originate, but most important is to buy land and make alliances… to preserve the water.”
According to García, last year the association, in conjunction with Madre Verde, bought approximately 42 acres of land, and in 2000 they bought 99 acres, with proceeds from the festival.
This year, William Vásquez estimates they’ll spend $100,000 buying land, and $5,000 buying fish for the river. “Buying land is the most important,” he emphasized.
Birth of a Tournament
The idea to include a fishing tournament in the Palmares Festival was the brainchild of Vásquez and three of his friends. They figured they could raise interest in fishing and the river, and also raise money to restock the waterway.
“We thought it would be good to repopulate the fish species in the river, so we talked to the Palmares Civic Association about holding this fishing tournament,” Vásquez said. “We would raise money from entrance fees to buy fish, and (the association) would put in money, too.”
The festival organizers were dubious. “They wouldn’t let us hold the tournament last year – they didn’t believe there were fish in the river. This year we did it, and there’s proof,” said William Solís, a member of the civic association’s sports commission. Solís liked the idea of the tournament, and was instrumental in making it happen.
“The goal of the tournament is to bring awareness about the river – not to pollute it,” he said.
The tournament, and the wee fish that were caught, were a small but mighty testament to the efficacy of implementing programs to conserve the environment.
“Though it takes many years to restore the river, you just have to start. This river joins others, and they all carry pollution to the Pacific Ocean at Puntarenas (the central Pacific coast’s main port city),” said José Joaquín López, also a member of the Palmares sports commission. “We organized the tournament to draw attention to (the state of the river and the need for conservation).
There have been private individuals who have tried to help, but this cause needs more strength, and the Palmares Civic Association helps with that.”
Return of the Fish
The day of the tournament, the river was a milky gray-green, slowly rambling along its course. A pretty setting, despite the waterway’s dirty history.
Three of the youths who came up with the idea of the tournament won first, second and third places. Mauricio Robles, 21, led with a tilapia measuring 14 inches long – more of a snack than a meal, but still impressive for a river that people doubted had any fish at all.
Albino Vásquez took second place with an eight-inch guapote (rainbow bass). Solís’ son Leonardo, 19, placed third with a six-inch guapote. The winners took home prize bags full of fishing supplies from Pura Pesca, an area fishing supply store that supported the event.
With plans to make the tournament an annual event, hopes are high that in coming years the catches will grow, in a cleaner river.